Be the Change: talking conflict transformation with Susan Collin Marks
- by Patricia Smith Melton
Founder, Peace X Peace
Editor, Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women
“Conflict transformation.” In the last several years the wording has morphed from conflict resolution to conflict transformation. This implies that conflicts not only can be neutralized but can be resolved so new energy is created or freed up for bonus good—and the people involved are themselves transformed, and discover new ways of handling the conflicts in their lives. I believe in this as a concept. It is as basic as hydrogen and oxygen joining to become water, as notes becoming melody, as the energy of “two or more gathered” in spiritual intent expanding into higher consciousness, and as the potential for mutual benefit of Israelis and Palestinians sharing water, resources, arts, and business. I.e., the whole of conflict transformation is greater than the sum of its parts.
As a concept, fine, good, great, wonderful! But what about the reality with wounded and confused human beings?
Susan Collin Marks is the consummate facilitator of new approaches to dialogue and resolution of seemingly entrenched conflicts. She lives the change she wants to see in the world. Susan is Senior Vice President of Search for Common Ground and has worked in the midst of conflicts that tear communities, nations, and the world apart for over 20 years. Susan was deeply involved in her own country South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy and lived in Jerusalem to work at the interface of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. A Peace X Peace Advisor, Susan facilitates high level talks between the US and some of its most intransigent “enemies,” with Desmond Tutu’s words always in her consciousness that an enemy is a friend waiting to be made.
PSM: Susan, peace, conflict transformation, what’s real here?
SUSAN: Peace is a process, not an event. It takes patience, compassion, and tenacity to help make it, build it, and keep it. Above all compassion. We are all stuck in our story and feel that ours is the right one. Our righteousness is a huge barrier. We more easily open ourselves to opposing narratives when we are loved than when we attacked. So the first job of the peacebuilder is to bring love into the heart of the conflict.
The job of peacebuilders is also to shift the perception of conflict in general as a bad thing. We will always have our differences—personally and communally. What counts is how we handle them. Violence is merely one possible response, and sadly it is too often the first resort. Peacebuilders can offer alternatives such as dialogue, joint problem solving, and common projects that serve all the communities involved—and practical tools such as deep listening, how to hold difficult conversations, and ways to tap into our common humanity.
PSM: Yet, Susan, some situations and people don’t easily lend themselves to resolution, let alone mutual transformation. People have thick filters, numbing scars, egos that scream “halt” to any information that might challenge their self-perception, and fears and justifications that deafen and blind them.
My peacebuilder’s belief, heretical perhaps, has come to include a Zen where sometimes the best path is peacefully going around people who are entrenched or obstructive—personally and politically.
SUSAN: We do the best we can at any moment within the constraints and conditions of our lives. In our woundedness, we can make terrible mistakes. The question then is, really, “What has hurt you so much that the only way you know to try and heal is to hurt others?” The answer can only be received and healed with compassion, both inside ourselves and with others.
And, when it is not possible to keep our distance—in a family or in a country―then it is our job to do what we can to salve the bruises and bind up the wounds. We do this one person or group at a time, because in the end, peace is made in the human heart. Every heart that is able to open to the other shifts the balance of the whole.
PSM: What is the hardest lesson you learned in conflict transformation?
SUSAN: As peacebuilders, we commit to be advocates for the process of building bridges, rather than being for one side or the other. At the same time, we feel strong human feelings—outrage at injustice, a sense of helplessness in the face of cruelty, anger at the destruction that violent conflict brings. We judge one side to be the perpetrator, the other to be the victim.
How do we reconcile these feelings with our work or, for many of us, our calling to weave together the frayed and broken threads of communities and societies, which, by its nature, involves engaging with the “bad guys,” because mending anything means bringing the broken halves together? The answer is by drawing on our innate compassion, or, if we don’t feel naturally very compassionate, deliberately developing a bottomless well of compassion that allows us to embrace everyone involved.
PSM: Deliberately developing a bottomless well of compassion?
Susan smiled, peacefully, while I contemplated how deep is “bottomless.” It felt as though if I did more digging, the well would fill with compassion on its own. Well done, Susan!